The fight is over staff, budgets and office space. Democrats say they won't back down and won't let the Senate organize unless Republicans give them the same percentage of money and staff as they gave the GOP last year when they had the same 51-49 split. The Republicans want to go back to earlier precedent and take two-thirds.
With the "organizing resolution" unfinished, Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., the next Budget Committee chairman, postponed a Tuesday hearing with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan on the economy. And the administration called off a confirmation hearing for Tom Ridge, President Bush's choice to head the new Homeland Security Department, because it didn't want the Government Affairs Committee's outgoing chairman, Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., to preside.
Ridge's hearing was rescheduled for Friday after Lieberman and his successor, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, agreed to a plan in which Lieberman would gavel the hearing open and then turn it over to Collins.
Normally, the Senate quickly disposes of the organizing resolution, which determines such housekeeping matters as who sits on which committee and how the majority and minority divide up committee money. Traditionally the minority party gets one-third.
But that all changed in the last Congress, which began in a 50-50 tie and Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., agreed to a near-even split of committee resources. When Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., left the Republicans and power shifted to the Democrats, new Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., agreed to continue that division with only minor adjustments.
Now, with Republicans holding a narrow majority, Democrats say it's only fair that they get close to half the committee seats and money.
"If it was good for both parties in the last Congress with 51-49, we are simply saying it is good for this Congress," Daschle said, adding that Democrats favor making permanent a system where the committees reflect the makeup of the Senate as a whole. Democrats will continue to nominally chair committees until a new resolution is passed.
Democrats insist they have no intention of using the organizing dispute to hold up legislation, including a package of spending bills for fiscal 2003 that the last Congress did not act on. But Republicans think otherwise.
GOP senators circulated an e-mail supposedly written by a Democratic staffer earlier this month stating that Democrats had leverage over the organizing resolution and little meaningful legislation would move on the Senate floor without an agreement on the resolution.
"There's some who think that, if they just keep shoving it, that the crisis in our agenda is so important that Senator Frist will just give in," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "I know he's not going to capitulate and give in to this unhistorical way to divide the leadership in this Senate."
New Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., warned Monday that he would cancel the usual mid-January recess unless the Senate completed the organizing resolution and the spending bills left over from last year.
He said that because of the dispute there were 11 new senators who couldn't participate in committee work and "it is going to get very confusing" to Americans expecting Congress to act decisively when the Senate can't even name committees and their chairmen.
Frist said he apologized to freshman Republicans at the GOP's weekly lunch Tuesday for the stalemate. "The Democrats are doing something that is totally unprecedented in the history of the United States of America," he said.
Frist on Tuesday introduced a resolution on committee membership. The makeup of the committees is not in dispute, but Democrats are unlikely to accept the resolution until there is an agreement on funding. Current funding levels will be in effect until the end of February.